Privacy complaints up 39%, says privacy commissioner
Privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart appears at the Commons ethics committee to discuss her annual report on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, April 26, 2012. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
Published Friday, October 5, 2012 7:52AM EDT
OTTAWA -- An RCMP and House of Commons security proposal to more than double the number of video cameras on Parliament Hill, without warning the public it's being watched, alarms the privacy commissioner, who says it's an ironic symbol of how pervasive government surveillance is becoming.
The plan, part of a massive security overhaul, combined with the Harper government's hotly debated Internet surveillance legislation contributes to a growing sense of unease among Canadians, Jennifer Stoddart said Thursday.
The privacy commissioner's office saw a spike in complaints and an increase in data breaches at federal departments and institutions last year, according to Stoddart's annual report.
She said she's skeptical about the massive use of video surveillance, but her report underscores not only privacy but democratic concerns.
"We were concerned about the scope of the project and its potential impact on the privacy rights of parliamentarians, parliamentary staff, guests and visitors to Parliament Hill, and of those engaging in peaceful protests and assemblies," said the report.
"According to the preliminary (privacy impact assessment) a deliberate decision was made to not post signs notifying individuals of video surveillance on Parliament Hill."
There are already 50 cameras operating on the roofs of the Parliament Buildings, but security officials are proposing to install an additional 134 video cameras over the next three years and to monitor them on 24/7 basis.
"Any of these massive surveillance programs are a real infringement on citizens' rights and have not necessarily proven their worth," Stoddart said in an interview.
"There have been quite egregious misuses of video surveillance cameras in public places."
She pointed to Quebec police, who were caught focusing the cameras outside the National Assembly on nearby hotel windows.
The RCMP was not immediately available to comment.
Stoddart renewed her criticism of Bill C-30, the Internet surveillance bill, which caused a firestorm of criticism in the House of Commons and across the country.
The bill is still in legislative limbo with justice officials reconsidering retooling it, but the privacy commissioner says it needs to be either completely "re-tailored" or scrapped.
"It needs an oversight and reporting mechanism minimally, (and) it needs a clear justification as to why this is the only way to go," she said.
The commissioner's office accepted 986 complaints in 2011-12, an increase of 39 per cent from the previous year, most of them directed at Corrections Canada, National Defence, the RCMP and Veterans Affairs.
In addition to her annual report, Stoddart tabled a separate privacy audit of Veterans Affairs, whose officials were caught in 2010 rifling through the medical files of an outspoken veterans advocate and stitching the private information into briefing notes.
The audit suggests the department has mostly cleaned up its act, but a survey of 88 briefing notes prepared after the Harper government said it tightened the use of "need-to-know" information found two of them "contained information that extended beyond what was strictly required."
Stoddart made a series of recommendations for improvement, all of which were accepted by Veteran Affairs Minister Steven Blaney.
"Our government recognizes that building and maintaining a strong culture of privacy demands ongoing vigilance," Blaney said in a statement.
"We are pursuing the highest standards in privacy protection so that all veterans can be confident their personal information is safe and their rights are being fully respected."
But the man at the centre of the privacy scandal said he was disappointed by Stoddart's audit. Sean Bruyea said it was too narrow in scope and focused too heavily on the bureaucratic process, rather than on the political motives at the heart of his case.
"There's nothing in her findings today that will prevent senior managers from doing what they did in my case," he said. "It overlooks the many risks, which includes the main risk; anyone that chooses to attack someone politically is not prevented from doing so."
Stoddart's review should have looked at the penalties veterans affairs dishes out to those who mishandle information and whether they're appropriate, he said.
The commissioner also took aim at Canada Revenue Agency, singling it out for a special audit following reports over the last few years of privacy breaches involving employees inappropriately accessing taxpayer information.